Richard Stockton: New Jersey Supreme Court Justice, Delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
New Jersey had five signers to the Declaration of Independence, including Richard Stockton. Stockton’s statue is one of two from New Jersey in the United States Capitol as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection.
Stockton was born on October 1, 1730, near Princeton, New Jersey, to John and Abigail Stockton. A wealthy landowner, John donated land to the town of Princeton to help attract the College of New Jersey located in Newark to Princeton, later changing its name to Princeton University.
Stockton attended the College of New Jersey and after graduating, studied law with David Ogden, a prominent lawyer in Newark. Stockton was admitted to the bar in 1754 and began a prominent legal career.
In 1766, Stockton traveled to London and spent significant time in London, Scotland and Ireland. Eventually, he was able to convince John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, to move to New Jersey to become President of the College of New Jersey. While on the trip, Stockton acquired his personal coat of arms and motto, “Omnia Deo Pendent,” meaning all depends on God.
Upon his return, in 1768 Stockton was elevated to a seat in the New Jersey Provincial Council, and in 1774, he was placed on the bench of the New Jersey Supreme Court.
In the same year, he drafted and sent to Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of the Colonies, “An Expedient for the Settlement of the American Disputes,” which would have provided for self-government for America without renouncing Great Britain. That proposal was rejected. Stockton initially was advocating for representation in Parliament by the colonies and a more moderate approach to peace with Great Britain. That changed over time with the Stamp Act and other initiatives by Great Britain.
In June 1776, Stockton was elected to the Second Continental Congress. Stockton and Witherspoon were elected to the Congress to replace two other members after New Jersey learned that the delegates were against independence. Stockton, along with his friend, Witherspoon, signed the Declaration of Independence. Stockton was the first to sign for New Jersey. One thing that Stockton requested and Congress agreed to do was to allow both sides of the argument to present reasoning. As noted, Stockton was convinced of the need and signed the Declaration.
Congress sent Stockton and a fellow signer to Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Albany, New York on a fact-finding tour. When he returned to New Jersey, the British had overrun New Jersey. Stockton quickly moved his family to safety, but the British captured him. Originally, he was jailed at Perth Amboy, then moved to Provost Prison.
Stockton was the only person who was arrested by the British for adding his name to the Declaration. Reportedly, he had agreed to recant his support and signed an oath of allegiance to King George III.
After five weeks in prison, Stockton was released on parole, returning to his estate, Morven, which had been looted and much of the furnishings destroyed, his extensive library burned. While Stockton was the only person arrested, others in the fifty-six signers knew when they agreed to the action that they were subjecting their lives, their liberties, their properties to danger, including death, having committed treason, defined as “the betrayal of allegiance toward one’s own country, especially by committing hostile acts against it or aiding its enemies in committing such acts.”
These brave patriots did in fact suffer, Stockton not being the only person to suffer losses. Five signers reportedly were captured by the British and brutally tortured as traitors. Nine signers fought in the Revolutionary War and died from wounds or hardships. A large number of the 56, a dozen or more, had their homes pillaged and burned. Benjamin Franklin, one of the few signers of the Declaration and the Constitution, said after signing the Declaration, “We must indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.”
Stockton returned to the practice of law, but developed cancer of the lip that moved to his throat, and Stockton died on February 28, 1781.
In 1969, a school in Atlantic City, the Richard Stockton State College, was named after him, and later changed its name to Stockton University. In 2017, the school began the Stockton Exhibition Project to explore why the school was named after him. There are questions about Stockton’s having slaves at his Morven estate and not releasing them at his death. In his will, Stockton included this provision:
“And whereas I have heretofore mentioned to some of my negroe slaves, that upon condition of their good behavior & fidelity, I would in some convenient period grant them their freedom—this I must leave to the discretion of my wife, in whose judgment & prudence I can fully confide.”
Some have suggested that Stockton’s statue be replaced in the Capitol Rotunda, but no major effort has been made to do so. His statue is one of only six signers of the Declaration to have a statue in the United States Capitol. One of five New Jersey signers of the Declaration, Stockton was the only signer to be imprisoned and abused for doing so.
Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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